Weekend, by William McIlvanney

Reeling and writhing
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The mansion of Willowvale is "Victorian egotism cast in stone". A folly on the Scottish island of Cannamore, it has a mysterious history and a ghost, and makes a brooding setting for the people gathering there for a study weekend in literature and creative writing. There is no central character in William McIlvanney's novel. Lonely writing teacher Harry Beck has had one big success, 15 years ago, but never succeeded in following it up. Lecturer David Cudlipp is a hard-bitten man with a penchant for seducing his students while his wife, Sandra, longs for the child they can never have. Andrew Lawson, instigator of the weekend, drinks to blunt the stress of years caring for a wife disabled by multiple sclerosis.

The students are scarcely more grounded. Bitter Jacqui has been let down by a man and blames them all; 19-year old Kate is desperate to lose her virginity; Vikki, thirtysomething, unsure after a broken marriage, wistfully hopes for a last fling before facing treatment for cancer. Marion, "the mouse", observes all.

Not surprisingly, liaisons ensue. The story nips backwards and forwards, unfolding through multiple viewpoints, interspersed with bits of fiction the characters are writing, along with texts of the lectures: Lawson on "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", Beck on the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx. We consider the human condition, the tension between the socialised being and the beast within, the nature of writing, the modern phenomenon of downgrading modesty from a virtue to a weakness, and the destiny of disappointment that awaits us all: "We can't just live. We have to dream our lives as well."

McIlvanney demands his reader's full attention. Slow to get off the ground because of the necessity to establish so many characters, the novel employs the opening device of three girls talking in the pub about the forthcoming weekend. This is slightly awkward. Later, new sections start without the naming of names, so that the reader must mentally shuffle through the large cast in order to work out who's centre-stage.

A complex, clever book, Weekend showcases McIlvanney's expertise with one-liners. Easy to admire, though curiously uninvolving, it packs a chilly punch: "What people met in [Willowvale's] corridors was perhaps the ghost of something in themselves, the unfulfilled stature of their dreams, looking for flesh."

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'The Naming of Eliza Quinn' (Virago)